Eventually, every band’s “how we got together” story starts to sound the same: They liked the same kind of music, got together in a basement/garage and practiced, played some clubs, etc., etc. Which is why the origin story of Old Crow Medicine Show, a Nashville sextet that specializes in old-time string-band music is refreshing, if only because it includes a crack house.
The band formed in 1998 and spent some time busking on street-corners for change before moving into said crack house in 1999. “We cleared out all the needles, and set a goal of being the world’s greatest old-time string band,” says Old Crow frontman and harmonica/banjo/fiddle player, Ketch Secor.
From those humble beginnings, the band has created quite a career; they caught the attention of the legendary Doc Watson while playing outside a pharmacy in Boone, N.C., and Watson invited them to play at his festival, MerleFest, which led shortly thereafter to the band being hired to entertain crowds between shows at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Since then, they’ve won two Grammy Awards, played Bonnaroo, Red Rocks Amphitheater, the Cambridge Folk Festival, and Coachella and appeared A Prairie Home Companion. Oh, and through a complicated series of events, Secor co-wrote the now-ubiquitous song “Wagon Wheel” with Bob Dylan in 2004, which was already popular by the time Darius Rucker discovered it in 2013 and took it to No. 1 on the Billboard Country Charts.
Along the way, the band has stubbornly stuck to their own sound over eight albums and seven EPs. It’s a dexterous, flexible blend of bluegrass, folk, and country with a solid basis in string-band music, and Secor says that their time playing on street-corners made them resilient about their sound early on.
“I feel like we learned so much on the street corner that would later apply to all things that we do,” Secor says. “Even when we’re playing some of these big festival dates when there are 25,000 people in front of us, it’s just a bigger crowd in front of your tip jar. And I think if we hadn’t been buskers, we probably would’ve been looking for someone else to help us make a lot of decisions. Oftentimes, we deliberately hobbled ourselves in order to stay on our own path. It’s not so much about not wanting to sell out — I would’ve sold out the whole catalog for five cases of beer and $100 — but nobody offered, thankfully, so we got to keep it all. We got to keep our catalog and keep our little insular wolf-pack mentality, and it served us well.”
Often, musicians will speak of playing with each other as a conversation between their instruments, but with string-band music, it’s more like a sustained shout. “The defining characteristic is uniformity,” he says. “When you play old-time string band music, which isn’t all that we play, but it’s the foundation of all the things we tackle as musicians, we’re approaching everything from a really deep understanding of what an old-time string band sounds like. And it’s not a discussion, it’s more of an argument that everybody’s having at a similar volume and intensity, which means loud.”
Given the amount of time the band spends on the road as opposed to in the studio, it makes sense that Old Crow Medicine Show tends to feel less comfortable when recording, but Secor says that over 18 years, they’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. “I think oftentimes when the studio can feel like a live show is when you can capture the best Old Crow stuff,” he says. “I remember [producer] Dave Rawlings used to bring this really pretty young woman around whenever we were doing one of my songs, and he would ask her to sit in the corner by the glass where I couldn’t help but look at her. And that would help me have a reason to conjure those spirits up in an excited way.”
Ultimately, whether they’re in the studio or onstage, Secor says the key element to the band sticking together is that they get along regardless of the locale. “That’s a really key element to the sustainability of a band,” he says. “As many years as we’ve been playing together, we’ve been forced to figure out that if this thing is going to keep rockin’, we’d better be able to enjoy it on and off the stage.
“It’s the kind of thing I would imagine baseball players get all the time,” Secor continues. “You might get a clutch hitter who’s got all the moves; he can do backflips and he’s hitting .375 and he’s got 50 stolen bases, but he’s an arrogant asshole in the clubhouse. Would you rather have that guy on your team or somebody that maybe isn’t as good but makes you play better as a team? Old time music is a team sport; it’s not about the individual. It’s about the fervor with which six or seven dudes can get six or seven hundred or thousand people to shout in unison, too.”